Sincerely, Leaders of Color: Let’s learn without fear of failure

Personal growth is imperative to professional and organizational growth.

Big, featured typography that says "Commitments Not Predictions 2022" on top of an orange to yellow gradient in the background. Above the featured text it also says "Source" and "Sincerely, Leaders of Color presents."

Commitments, Not Predictions: As we start 2022, Sincerely, Leaders of Color asked our fellow leaders, allies, and rebels — of all colors — to make commitments and promises for the year ahead, and how they’ll contribute to making safer, healthier newsrooms for all journalists of color. Here’s what they said. This special series is presented with support from The American Press Institute.

At what point in your tenure at an organization do you begin to form groupthink in your team? When do you stop learning?

More often than not, it may surprise you. It may happen so quickly that you don’t even recognize it. Feeling at home at your job can be wonderful and validating, especially when you have a different background or lifestyle than your colleagues. But leaning into the team can also lead to complacency and, at some point, creates hive mind elements that encourage us to put challenges to the side and not fight against the current.

Who doesn’t want validation among our peers? Who wouldn’t create the same projects over and over if you knew there was no chance of failure? But stagnated growth can mean forgetting that it’s our job to serve a changing audience, and an audience that can think very differently than the people making up our newsrooms. In the worst circumstances, excessive comfort leads to boredom, burnout, or turnover: detrimental to workers, organizations, and the communities we serve.

So, how do we continue to invest in the growth of the talent in our newsrooms while creating a culture where people feel welcome, connected, and innovative?

I’m making a commitment to make every person in my group a leader by investing in our collective growth and fighting fear.

Our experimentation team at McClatchy is a mix of people with unique skill sets in a compact group. With a core mission to identify audiences and their needs we do not currently serve, we are set up with a roster of editorial leaders, product thinkers, researchers, and engineers. Together, we have backgrounds and experience in design, architecture, advertising, social, and more. We’re set up to identify problems, ideate on possible solutions, and make quick decisions as to the next step. Always on our feet, and with many of us having arts backgrounds, we find ourselves using creative measures to workshop challenges. But with that varied experience and creativity, how can we be sure to develop everyone across skill lines?

Starting with one weekly afternoon time slot, we have created a learning series to go in-depth on each colleague’s areas of expertise. What are the basics of user testing? How do you create a persona? How do you identify the key performance indicators of a community of circumstance?

Each week at this time, we decline all other meetings to understand and develop a new, necessary skill that can be put into practice immediately.

Because outside perspectives are important, once a month we hear from a speaker from an outside organization we admire, usually a competitor. We’ve left these meetings so inspired that it’s resulted in quick experiments and deeper questions at following project meetings.

To extend that perspective even further, we have a personal development budget that allows us to learn outside of our office walls. Whether that’s conferences, certificate programs, or online professional training, it’s important to continuously develop new skills outside of the hive. I aim to send one teammate to an event each quarter, although COVID risks and family time comes before work development.

And because you can’t develop yourself without getting out of your comfort zone, we added a monthly “creative day”. This is a day to dedicate to outside projects or training that flex a different part of the brain. Someone may decide to take a watercolor painting class to understand art and design, while another person may spend the day writing code for a new experiment. The following week, we share what we’ve done and one lesson we learned; a highlight was hearing a colleague explain their newfound audio recording knowledge and brainstorming ways to utilize that concept in projects. Or, chatting with a newsroom partner we don’t work with often to conceptualize a news RPG. I’ve been personally out of my comfort zone learning about neuroscience, memory and learning. Additionally, we aim to apply this outside learning in quarterly team retrospectives, chances to take stock of what we’ve accomplished, what we can do better, and where we want to go.

The biggest challenge, however, has been using these benefits to the full extent, in part due to fear. When trying a new skill, you’re destined to fail at it; that’s okay and more importantly, it’s part of growing. I am committing to an atmosphere where failure is not just necessary, but preferred. For every skill or project or test we pick up, we may have three that just don’t make it, but that have added valuable information to the collective.

“In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk,” says Ed Catmull in his book Creativity, Inc. about his time at Pixar and Disney Animation. Mistakes are part of the path to learning, and everyone deserves a space to learn without fear of not being good enough. “If you create a fearless culture, people will be much less hesitant to explore new ideas, identifying uncharted pathways and charging down them,” Catmull explains. Failing upwards (in the words of Andrea Breanna) is part of the research process to assess business pivots, so why not apply it to our own development? What could we achieve if we weren’t afraid? Would we pitch more experiments? Would everyone speak up more in meetings? Would we laugh more in meetings? Would we speak up for more communities that we’d like to serve? I don’t know the answers, but as a team, we will find out.

Simply being allowed to experiment and explore can have such amazing benefits for innovation, workflow, and collaboration. Affording ourselves the time to invest in new skillsets, opens our minds and creates empathy across the team. Making time to learn without fear creates infinite opportunities for growth and leadership.

Annemarie Dooling
Managing Editor of Editorial Experimentation at McClatchy

This is a guest column, solicited by P. Kim Bui and Emma Carew Grovum and edited by Kim. We want to make sure to include voices from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences. If you’re interested in guest writing, or have someone you’d love to hear from, let us know here.

Clarification, March 8, 2022: We’ve removed a confusing phrase in the post. Multiple teams at McClatchy have personal development budgets.


  • Annemarie Dooling

    For the past 15 years, Annemarie has worked on community products at organizations like The Huffington Post, Vox Media and The Wall Street Journal, with bylines across the industry. When not on Slack, she spends time learning magic and animation in Philadelphia.


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